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Running helped Lindsay Walter embrace living with alopecia

Lindsay Walter was rightly glowing in April after winning her first 48-hour ultramarathon: the Upstate Ultra Country Mile, where she spent two solid days repeating a parkrun-sized trail loop in South Carolina and ended up running just over 160 miles – nine more than the first-placed man. It didn’t take long for the 31-year-old health coach’s bubble to be rudely popped, however, when soon afterwards a woman shouted at her for being in the wrong public bathroom because ‘you’re a man’.

It’s one of many misconceptions that Walter faces as a woman with alopecia universalis, an autoimmune condition that has left her with no body hair since the age of two. In every other respect she’s perfectly healthy, as her 48 marathon medals suggest her, but a lack of awareness around the condition also leads some who meet her to assume incorrectly that she has a life-threatening illness. ‘Most people do come from a place of trying to be nice, but if you think I have cancer, you can keep that to yourself,’ she says with a smile. ‘I don’t need you to tell me how “healthy” I look today.’

The world had a chance to learn more about alopecia back in March, of course, when the actor Will Smith hit the comedian Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars ceremony. Rock had made an insensitive joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s head, which she had shaved following an alopecia diagnosis in 2018. Subsequently the world’s media focused entirely on the violence – a big waste of a teachable moment, according to Walter.

‘It seemed like no one was talking about the real victim in that situation, who was Jada. That hurt she must have felt – I felt that to my core,’ she says. ‘I know what it’s like to be in a setting where you’re humiliated and embarrassed and you don’t know how to respond. But there was also a huge missed opportunity to educate on alopecia.’

Walter’s earliest memory is of attending pre-school wearing a wig, a disguise that remained taped on throughout her education, including a successful spell as a college basketball star at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It wasn’t so realistic that people didn’t know, and she was also missing her eyelashes and eyebrows, so bullying was common. ‘At that time, social media wasn’t a thing, and there was no one else in my family, school or community with alopecia. Not having anyone to talk to was super hard and isolating.’

Naturally, she tried to keep a low profile as a child. It’s much more recently, and partly thanks to running, that she has found that she isn’t truly an introvert. ‘When kids were mean to me, I never said anything back to them because I didn’t have any confidence in myself. I would say I’m definitely a lot more extroverted now, and that feels like my true personality about her. When I’m running, I feel so confident and strong, and that has carried over into my personal life. Now I’m accepting and embracing my alopecia.’

While at university, she and her friends used to go and watch the annual marathon in Duluth, known as Grandma’s Marathon. In her last year of studying, 2012, she signed up with only a few weeks to go, simply feeling like a marathon was something for a competitive-spirited basketball player to tick off the bucket list. ‘I never thought, “I’m gonna become a runner now,” but that feeling of crossing the finish line was so exciting. You’re so celebrated. Everyone was so encouraging, and I didn’t feel like anyone was looking at me because of my alopecia.’

Many marathons later, the one she feels most fondly towards is the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in 2014. That was the first one she ran with no wig. During her training for the race, she had taken it off mid-run, no longer feeling like it represented female beauty. ‘I didn’t even pack the wig when I flew to San Diego. That felt like a huge deal,’ she says. ‘The running community has always been so embracing and so supportive. It feels like genuine kindness. We all look different, we all have different goals, and we all encourage one another.’

Now she’s finding that her decision to become more visible is inspiring others, too. Three years ago, she started Lindsay’s Little Pals, through which she writes encouraging letters to younger people with alopecia. ‘Some people would say they understood what I was going through as a kid, but you don’t understand until you lose your hair and experience all the emotions that come with that. Now I can be that person that I needed when I was younger, and that is the coolest thing.’

The next challenge in the diary is the Berlin Marathon, with a plan to break the three-hour mark. Today her identity of her is runner first, everything else second. ‘I live my alopecia day in day out, so to have people respect me as a runner, ask me about my training and my races, I love that. Alopecia is what I have, but it’s not who I am.’

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